The cots were strategically placed near the Senate chamber. Plenty of coffee was ordered. And the sergeant at arms was instructed to be prepared to retrieve absent senators early this morning.
In a carefully choreographed event, the “world’s greatest deliberative body” staged a rare overnight debate devoted to the Iraq war. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called the session in an attempt to spotlight Republican opposition to a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq.
The all-nighter underscored the limits the Democratic majority faces in pressing its agenda with a narrowly divided Congress and a Republican president armed with a veto pen full of ink.
And it highlighted the increasing partisan tension in the chamber over the more than 4-year-old war.
“Will the all-night session change any votes?” Reid said Tuesday. “I hope so. Because it will focus attention on the obstructionism of the Republicans.”
Republicans, however, dismissed the session as a political stunt. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called it “theater and bad theater at that.”
But Republicans have used similar theatrics, launching a round-the-clock “talkathon” in 2003, when they were in the majority, to protest Democratic filibusters over President Bush’s judicial nominees.
Unlike the talkathon, when only a handful of senators were required to be on the floor at one time during the late night and early morning, Reid threatened to call votes that would require the sergeant at arms to round up missing senators.
That evoked memories of 1988, when officers carried then-Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) feet-first into the chamber to answer a quorum call.
Reid called the session out of frustration over what he said were GOP efforts to thwart the will of a majority of senators.
In a vote scheduled for today, Democrats are expected to pick up at least three Republicans for a proposal that would require troop withdrawals to begin within 120 days of enactment, with only a limited presence remaining after April 30, 2008.
But again, the Democrats are expected to fall short of the 60 votes needed to end debate and move to a final roll call on the measure.
Democrats invited Iraq war veterans to sit in the gallery for the debate.
Republicans launched their own public-relations offensive, featuring Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and their own set of veterans speaking out against a withdrawal timetable.
Lieberman complained that “too many of our colleagues in the chamber are already asleep when it comes to Iraq. They’re already asleep about the stakes America faces in Iraq.”
It was the 31st all-night Senate session since 1915, according to the Senate Historical Office. That included South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 24-hour, 18-minute filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
“This is as bad as civility has been on the Hill in a generation or more,” said Don Kettl, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist.
Democrats hoped to depict Republicans as out of touch with a war-weary American public and to turn up the heat on lawmakers, especially those facing reelection next year, to support a withdrawal timetable.
“The move reflects the Democrats’ increasing confidence that they can force a pullout from Iraq,” said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “The all-nighter is another wave crashing against the Republican levees. Democrats think that the levees will break soon.”
But a number of Republican senators expressed doubt that the all-night session would change anybody’s vote.
“The American people see right through this charade going on tonight,” Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) said Tuesday evening to a handful of his colleagues. “This debate is more about political show and placating the MoveOn folks than it is about talking about the real issues at hand.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) defended the session: “Everyone is frustrated.... We have got to do a better job showing America what is actually going on in the Senate now, and that is, for the first time ever, the Republican Party has decided that we have to get to 60 votes on almost everything of substance.”
“We need to out them,” she added. “They figured out that their success is our failure.”
The Senate’s newcomers were taking their first all-night session in stride.
“We’re used to being told where to show up and what to do,” said freshman Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.).
Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) was among the senators unhappy about the prospect of a sleepless night.
“I have much better things to do with my night,” he said. “They all include Zs.”